Thursday, April 3, 2008

Female Spirituality in the Late Middle Ages and the Search for a Feminine Christianity (Part I)

(This is a paper that I wrote for a course I took this past quarter. Since the issues that I deal with in this paper are things that I deal with here on Izgad I have decided to put this paper up as a series of posts.)

Christianity is generally looked upon as a patriarchal religion. Christians believe that God came down in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and died to save mankind from Original Sin, which was brought about by a woman, Eve. While women appear in various Gospel stories and it would seem that Jesus possessed female followers, Jesus’ apostles were all men. It was to men that Jesus gave the authority to preach his word and to cast out demons.[1] The primary books of Christianity, the New Testament and the writings of the Church fathers, were written by men. The Church excluded women from its leadership.[2] Paul forbade women to preach, saying that: “The women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they should be subject, even as the law also says. But if they desire to learn anything, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church.”[3] Not only were women shut out of the Church hierarchy, they were also viewed as sources of sin. Women, as the bearers of the legacy of Eve and Original Sin,[4] were viewed as more earthly, less rational and, if left unchecked, likely to corrupt men.

That being said women, throughout the history of Christianity, left their mark on the Church. Women played a leading role in spreading the Christian faith. Christian women were venerated as saints and martyrs.[5] During the latter Middle Ages we see numerous examples of female religious leaders, and movements. Women such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) and Catherine of Siena (1347-80) took on highly public roles, daring to criticize the Church hierarchy. The source for this power lay in the belief that women possessed a special relationship with Christ, manifesting itself in prophetic visions, their personal identification with the Passion and their adoration of the Eucharist. This raises the question as to the extent these things can be viewed as part of a female Christianity. Were the female spiritual movements of the later Middle Ages an expression of a unique feminine understanding of Christianity or were these movements simply reflections of the male Church hierarchy.

In this paper I will be looking at five books that deal with this issue from different perspectives. Rudolph Bell’s Holy Anorexia and Dyan Elliott’s Proving Woman take a male centric view on these movements, seeing them as reflecting male ideas. In contrast to this, I offer Caroline Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast, who analyzes these movements from a more female centric point of view and argues that these movements came out of a distinctively feminine view of the world. Finally I offer Rosalyn Voaden’s God’s Words, Women’s Voices and John W. Coakley’s Women, Men and Spiritual Power, who view these movements as part of an ongoing dialogue of the female visionaries and the clergymen who followed them.

[1] See Luke 9:1-2. Also see Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:15.
[2] The discovery of non-canonical gospels and Gnostic literature has shown us that the early Church was far more open to women than previously thought. These texts did not play any role in medieval thought. As this paper is concerned with the Middle Ages, it is the patriarchal tradition in Christianity that we most deal with.
[3] I Corinthians 14:34-35 (Recovery Version)
[4] See I Timothy 2:14
[5] See Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg’s Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society CA. 500-1100.

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